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VC10: Icon of the Skies

BOAC, Boeing and a Jet Age Battle

 

Lance Cole

Pen & Sword, 2017

As the opening line of the introductions states: “This is the story of not just an airliner, but also the airline industry, an airline and the nation and society it served.” The author thereby gives himself authority to swerve off piste – which he does! Lance Cole is undoubtedly in love with this aircraft – indubitably the Queen of the Skies during its reign; he sets out well its historic context – the old Imperial Airways seaplane routes down Africa. This slightly lyrical start made me think the book would not be one of those more technical tomes where the history of stress testing  the port inner flap bracket is set out in detail. I was wrong – this book is comprehensive, and the reader is reminded not once, twice or thrice, but many times over that this machine was true to the ancestry of Vickers as a shipbuilder. We learn just how many how items in the final design were milled from solid billets.  

 

The VC10 emerged from that strange post-war period when the Jet Age was bleeding edge, when customer reaction to new aircraft types could only be guessed at, and when the scale of growth in commercial traffic was unknown. Cole writes with a very acid pen about the political decisions taken in the Forties and Fifties which shaped the industry, and concludes that the Comet was an evolutionary dead-end. He gives full credit to the German designers lifted from their Motherland in 1945, whose IP enhanced the subsequent products of both the USA and the UK.

 

The V1000 (an immediate forebear of the Valiant) is described, as many of its design features evolved into the VC10. He relates it as being of typical Vickers strength, yet does not explain why it subsequently had such major metal fatigue issues that it was withdrawn from service.

 

His love of the subject occasionally leads to some rather unsubstantiated (and in this case tautological)  assertions: “The twin and tri-jet Vanjet concepts had the air of real, tangible success.”  Cole shares Vickers’ pain that BOAC proved such a troublesome customer, and he keeps returning to the subject of the national airline’s continuous love affair with Boeing products, even to the extent that BOAC continued placing orders (for the 747) even whilst it was engaged in a lengthy and acrimonious law suit about an alleged B707 design flaw (after a CAT-induced crash in Japan). The book includes a thorough comparison of the VC10’s operating merits compared to those of the 707.

 

Younger readers may be surprised to learn that BOAC demanded (and won) an operating subsidy for flying the VC10. The underlying problem was that the VC10 was designed and engineered to operate from  short and dubious runways in Africa. Boeing’s pressure, and the USA’s financial muscle, meant that by the time the VC10 was in its heyday, runways at major international airports had been extended to accommodate the less than sprightly 707. The VC10’s key operating advantage was negated. What was left was an airframe that was as delightful to fly, as it was comfortable in which to be a passenger.  

 

This book could have usefully been 30-50% shorter. A discourse on interwar UK airlines and airports around London adds little to the narrative, for example. There is frequent repetition and duplication; the narrative flow goes round in circles. It is obviously that Cole knows his topic very well, but it is as if he has failed to think through his prose before starting to tap his keyboard. The quality of English deteriorates towards the end of the book.  Take a peek at this mind-bender:

BOAC’s cancelled Super VC10 orders meant that the RAF could jump in and get quicker VC10 C Mk 1 built slots of its Type 1106 airframes and the first RAF VC10 registered as XR806 took off from Brooklands on 26 November 1965, entering service with the reformed No. 10 Squadron in July of 1966, but not performing its first full RAF ‘airline’ Transport Command duties until early 1967 after months of crew training and route proving all over the world – where on occasion, local BOAC VC10 knowledge came to assist.” Phew!

 

Apostrophes wander or are absent, and there is a rash of errors that decent editing should have excised. An egregious error is that Vickers’ test airfield is usually called “Wisely”! Cole is very comfortable with the BOAC/Vickers relationship, but comparatively little space is given to the RAF’s procurement exercise.

 

Aside from some quotes from Brian Trubshaw (the Vickers / BAC test pilot), there are few quotes from VC10 pilots – this is a glaring omission. Pen & Sword should have taken some lessons from Grub Street’s ‘Boys’ series, and utilised the power of selective quotes from aircrew. There must be a plethora of down route anecdotes, which would have enlivened this volume.  Former VC10 aircrew will no doubt find much of interest in this book, but it is too flawed for the general reader.